The recent news that NBA Free Agent Jason Collins came out has me thinking. I’m not a basketball fan – I don’t follow the NBA – but the news of this athlete coming out as gay (I read about it in the Sports Illustrated article here) struck me as a significant, almost seismic, shift.
Perhaps it struck me in such a way because I recently heard a presentation (see earlier posts, this was when I was speaking up at Phillips Exeter – the other keynote speaker was Ritch Savin Williams) that discussed the changing perception of gay identity. Part of Savin-Williams’ presentation was looking at public figures who had come out. He mentioned the huge impact of the WNBA player Sheryl Swoopes’ coming out as lesbian and remarked that, though retired male professional athletes had come out, no active players had.
Subsequent to hearing Savin-Williams speak, my own school had a diversity day on which I taught a workshop having to do with how different generations perceive gay identity. Taking a historical perspective, I showed some clips of “Boys Beware” and then went through Time Magazine covers and other seminal images to illustrate to the students how gay people had been presented in the media and what this reflected about mainstream’s society’s understanding of gay identity as well as how it might have influenced their grandparents' and parents' perception of gays.
It was a lively conversation, and I was impressed by the number of openly gay celebrities the students came up with. Singers, news personalities, actors, authors... I thought of how earth-shattering Ellen Degeneres’ coming out was for me – how it was the first time that I could think of that someone had come out and that person’s career not only hadn’t ended but indeed had improved. But the students did agree that no current professional male athlete in a big market, mainstream American sport had come out as gay. They were divided as to whether this would “matter,” but many thought it would.
And now, Jason Collins has filled in this missing gap. When I heard about it (first on NPR and then reading more fully in the Sports Illustrated piece), I instantly felt: big news! But why? Plenty of people are out already. Why do I feel this one is a game-changer? Well, first there’s the honest forthrightness of his story. With so much press given to those who come out earlier and earlier in life, it is striking that he didn’t come out (to others and even, it seems, to himself) until his thirties.
This makes me pause and think: as wrapped up as the GLBT movement has become in the notion of marriage equality and the forward push on that, we need to keep spending time on the core messages of self-acceptance, of handling feelings of self-loathing and denial, not to mention the cultural acceptance of GLBT identity. Gay marriage is for those who have already arrived and passed through these trials, and by focusing on marriage equality, we can’t deceive ourselves into thinking that the basic issues have been resolved.
Second, it matters because male sports teams, professional ones in particular, remain a bastion of “straightness” – for wont of a better word. The longer it continues without anyone being out and being in the locker room, the more it perpetuates stereotypes (that gay men aren’t athletic) and the more it permits intolerant cultures to persist (witness the recent Rutgers coach who was fired for his homophobic rant ) The moment that athletes realize that there might be or are in fact gay men on their team, is the moment when it is most likely attitudes and behaviors will shift.
In the next few weeks and months, I’ll be interested to see the ripple effects of Collins’s declarations. He is brave – personally and professionally – to come out. Likely, there will be many people who say “it doesn’t matter” but I suspect there will be many (and perhaps they won’t say it) for whom it will matter a great deal.